For the last 14 years, Christina Holtzclaw has worked tirelessly at the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living in Rome, Georgia. This nonprofit organization assists individuals of all ages who have all types of disabilities and helps them reach their goals of living independently. They serve 15 counties, and the majority of the staff are people with disabilities. In her role as assistant director, Holtzclaw meets one-on-one with consumers in the community, collaborates with the office nursing home coordinator and other staff, works on the budget and finances, meets with the board of directors, and whatever else needs to be done. The core services of the Center are independent living skills training, information & referral, peer mentoring, self-advocacy, and transition services. "Peer support is the most unique service that we offer," Holtzclaw said. "I would have given up if I didn’t have others with disabilities in my life as I pursued my career."
Growing Up and Going to School with a Visual Impairment
Holtzclaw developed congenital cataracts from infancy. She was born premature and stayed in an incubator that caused damage to her eyes, particularly her retina. She is the oldest of three children and grew up like most children. "I didn’t realize until I was in school that I had a vision problem because my parents treated me like everyone else," she remembered. "I appreciate that now more than I did back then."
Holtzclaw attended regular public school, even though she wanted to go to the Macon Academy for the Blind, which is the residential school for blind and visually impaired children in the state of Georgia. Her parents wanted her close to home, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had just passed. This act allowed for disabled children to attend federally funded public schools. But staying close to home presented some new and interesting challenges for Holtzclaw. First, her teacher had just been hired. Second, there was little to no assistive technology to her in class or at home to get assignments done; all she had was a typewriter.
It was not until the third grade that things began to improve. She got a CCTV to read printed materials, a tape recorder, and black magic markers. She also began to learn braille. But in order to learn braille, she had to attend two schools. The vision teacher was located at another school that had more visually impaired students whereas she was the only one at her school. So, she was bused across town for class. "We were some of the first blind students at that time," Holtzclaw said. "Everyone was just kind of scrambling to figure it out and make it work."
College Life and Accommodations
Holtzclaw persevered, graduated high school, and headed to college at Shorter University. She had learned white cane mobility skills but thought it best to get a guide dog to travel around campus. Once on campus, her accommodations were much better. "Computers were making their way in, and I had readers to record my lessons onto tape recorders," Holtzclaw explained. "I also used a Kurzweil reader because there was a blind professor on campus, and he allowed me to use some of his equipment."
Finding a Job
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1996, she began to job search. But like most blind people, it was very difficult. "I was feeling very discouraged," she said. She eventually found a job working at a sheltered workshop and worked there almost one year. But during that period, her self-esteem took a hit. "This was not what I wanted, but it was work," she recalled. Holtzclaw shared that at the time she felt "ashamed and embarrassed" about working at the sheltered workshop; however, she feels differently now. "I am glad that I had that experience because I know what it is like, and it helps to do the job I do today," she said. "I can see why people give up and get discouraged."
In 1998, a new company came into the Rome area hiring customer service representatives. Even though this was not in her field of study, Holtzclaw worked with her vocational rehabilitation counselor and was hired. She worked at Sitel Corporation for five years until the company closed. This job was a much better experience. "I had better pay and benefits," Holtzclaw said. "I also met my husband there and purchased a home, too." She also got accommodations with assistive technology which was especially critical because glaucoma was starting to develop around this time. But on a sad note, her guide dog passed away, and she decided not to get another one.
Holtzclaw found herself job searching again but only for a short time. She heard about an organization opening called Disability Link-NW that served the disabled population in her area. Later the name was changed to the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living. It was in its infancy and just getting off the ground. In 2004, she applied for their independent living coordinator position and was hired.
"When I went in for the interview I couldn’t find the building because it was so new, there was one fax machine that was not even hooked up yet and one desk," she explained. "I helped build the organization from the ground up. I even was involved in the design of the current building, making sure it was accessible and accommodating." It was only three staff members in the beginning, and now, there are eight today. Holtzclaw was upfront about her abilities and limitations during her interview because she knew that this agency would be serving people in rural parts of the community with little to no transportation. "I said in the interview that I couldn’t drive, and the director said that she couldn’t either," Holtzclaw chuckled. They were able to work things out, and she even went back and got a guide dog again to assist her better in commuting for work.
That was 14 years ago, and Holtzclaw is still there but now works as assistant director. "This job has been the biggest blessing of my whole life," Holtzclaw said cheerfully. "This was what I always wanted." Holtzclaw credits her happiness at work with the fact that she can relate to her consumers. She is able to assist because she remembers what it is like on the other side of that desk. "I think it is hard to take advice from someone who has not faced the same issues," she said. "I think relatability is highly underestimated."